863: Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

by Gerard


863.3: Miguel de Cervantes. Don Quixote of the Mancha. Translated by Thomas Shelton. New York: P.F. Collier & Son Corporation, 1969. 516 pp.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 800: Literature and Rhetoric
  • 860: Spanish and Portuguese literatures
  • 863: Spanish fiction
  • 863.3: Golden Age, 1516—1699

Cervantes’s Don Quixote is one of the granddaddies of Western literature. First published in 1605, it follows the whimsical adventures of Alonso Quixano and his friend Sancho Panza as they travel across the Spanish countryside looking for adventure and knightly acclaim. The main conceit of the novel is that Quixano has become addled by age and has read way too many novels about chivalry and knights-errant. Slowly but surely, he convinces himself that he is also a great man worthy of the adulations of those in his novels. He styles himself Don Quixote de la Mancha and strong arms a local farmer Sancho Panza into going out and righting the many wrongs he sees.

In addition to deluding himself, he also re-imagines the world around him through the lens of chivalry. Regular windmills become frightful giants, herds of sheep become warring sides of classic knights, lowly inns become great castles, and so on. The adventures are both humorous and sad. At each turn, our two heroes are beaten and bruised, or at the very least, made fools of. I admired Sancho’s resolve to stick by his hidalgo even though he could have fled at almost every moment and left Don Quixote to fend for himself. In trying to show the ridiculousness of the old ways, the book shows that some of them are worth preserving.

The chapters are episodic, so the story moves along at a predictable pace, but there is no real story here—just a string of tales to regale the reader. That being said, there is a lot to unpack in this novel. It predates almost everything else, so many of the tricks of the trade find their home here, including modern pastiche, metafiction, and social critique. My translation was just a lightly edited version of the original 1620 Thomas Shelton work, so the writing for me was very stilted. I have looked at a few pages of other translations, and if you can get the Edith Grossman or the Tom Lathrop, you will have a better time than I had. All in all, it is a tremendous work worthy of the time required.